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Despite many protocols and requirements that hospitals are setting in order to avoid surgical mistakes, doctors and surgeons are still performing an alarming number of errors in the operating room. In the case of surgical negligence, the responsible party largely depends on who the surgeon is employed by and whether or not the error was preventable.

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Factors That Lead To Surgical Errors

Cognitive factors, such as judgment error and memory failure are typically the most common contributory factors in surgical errors. However, errors usually occur from a combination of factors, not just one alone.

Common factors that can lead surgeons to make surgical errors include:

  • Excessive workload on the surgeon
  • Surgeon inexperience
  • Low hospital volume for some operations
  • Lack of optimal technology
  • Poor staff communication, including failure to clearly establish staff responsibilities or conflict among personnel
  • Inadequate hospital systems
  • Surgeon fatigue
  • Physical illness
  • Lack of supervision
  • Interruptions or distractions

Cognitive factors, such as judgment error and memory failure are typically the most common contributory factors in surgical errors. However, errors usually occur from a combination of factors, not just one alone.

Lower level staff members who notice that doctors are performing surgical errors may not inform the surgeon because they’re fearful of the surgeon’s response.

Doctors who talk to a patient before surgery are less likely to operate on the wrong limb than those who first see the patient when he or she arrives in the operating room. A study revealed that when introductions were made prior to surgery, the average number of complications and deaths fell by 35 percent.

Frequency and Costs of Mistakes

A 2008 study found that preventable surgical errors may cost employers nearly $1.5 billion a year. Insurers had to pay additional costs for medical errors when compared with patients who did not experience errors in the operating room. The following are associated with medical errors and increased costs for surgery patients:

  • 33% more for nursing care associated with medical errors, including pressure ulcers and hip fractures
  • 32% more for metabolic problems, including kidney failure or uncontrolled blood sugar
  • 25% more for blood clots of other vascular or pulmonary problems
  • 6% more for wound opening

In 2011, surgical error mistakes were estimated to be at 40 per week in the United States. Doctors who failed to perform a “time-out” in which the surgical staff could all ensure that they were performing on the correct side of the patient. This is also the time that the doctor can ensure that he is performing the correct procedure on the patient in need. A study revealed that in 72 percent of 132 reported cases of a wrong-patient procedure, doctors had failed to perform a “time-out.”

Types of Resulting Injury

Surgical errors can lead to many resulting injuries and complications that can cause the patient unnecessary pain, suffering, and additional costs.

Common types of injuries that result from errors in the operating room include:

  • Foreign instrument left in patient
  • Unexpected bleeding
  • Operation on the wrong part or wrong side of patient
  • Unnecessary or inappropriate operation
  • Ineffective operation that doesn’t take care of medical issue
  • Visceral/nerve injury
  • Unnecessary advancement of disease
  • Operative injury
  • Amputation error



Boodman, Sandra G. “Serious Surgical Mistakes Persist, Despite Safety Rules.” NPR. N.p., 21 June 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Rabin, Roni Caryn. “Surgical Errors Continue Despite Protocols.” The New York Times. N.p., 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Rogers, Selwyn O., Atul A. Gawande, Mary Kwaan, Ann L. Puopolo, Catherin Yoon, Troyen A. Brennan, and David M. Studdert. “Analysis of Surgical Errors in Closed Malpractice Claims at 4 Liability Insurers.” Surgery 140.1 (2006): 25-32. Harvard Risk Management Foundation, July 2006. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.
“New AHRQ Study Finds Surgical Errors Cost Nearly $1.5 Billion Annually.” Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. N.p., 28 July 2008. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.